JOPLIN, Mo. — Rescue crews dug through piles of splintered houses and crushed cars Monday in a search for victims of a half-mile-wide tornado that killed at least 116 people when it blasted much of this Missouri town off the map and slammed straight into its hospital.
It was the nation’s deadliest single twister in nearly 60 years and the second major tornado disaster in less than a month.
Authorities feared the toll could rise as the full scope of the destruction comes into view: house after house reduced to slabs, cars crushed like soda cans, shaken residents roaming streets in search of missing family members. And the danger was by no means over. Fires from gas leaks burned across town, and more violent weather loomed, including the threat of hail, high winds and even more tornadoes.
At daybreak, the city’s south side emerged from darkness as a barren, smoky wasteland.
“I’ve never seen such devastation — just block upon block upon block of homes just completely gone,” said former state legislator Gary Burton who showed up to help at a volunteer center at Missouri Southern State University.
Unlike the multiple storms that killed more than 300 people last month across the South, Joplin was smashed by just one exceptionally powerful tornado.
Not since a June 1953 tornado in Flint, Mich., had a single twister been so deadly. That storm also killed 116, according to the National Weather Service.
Authorities were prepared to find more bodies in the rubble throughout this gritty, blue-collar town of 50,000 people about 160 miles south of Kansas City.
Gov. Jay Nixon said he did not want to guess how high the death toll would eventually climb. But he said: “Clearly, it’s on its way up.”
Seventeen people were pulled alive from the rubble. An unknown number of people were hurt.
While many residents had up to 17 minutes of warning, rain and hail may have drowned out the sirens.
Larry Bruffy said he heard the first warning but looked out from his garage and saw nothing. “Five minutes later, the second warning went off,” he said. “By the time we tried to get under the house, it already went over us.”
As rescuers toiled in the debris, a strong thunderstorm lashed the crippled city. Rescue crews had to move gingerly around downed power lines and jagged chunks of debris as they hunted for victims and hoped for survivors. Fires, gas fumes and unstable buildings posed constant threats.
Teams of searchers fanned out in waves across several square miles. The groups went door to door, making quick checks of property that in many places had been stripped to their foundations or had walls collapse.
National Weather Service Director Jack Hayes said the storm was given a preliminary label as an EF4 — the second-highest rating assigned to twisters based on the damage they cause.
Hayes said the storm had winds of 190 to 198 mph. At times, it was three-quarters of a mile wide.
Some of the most startling damage was at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, where staff had only moments to hustle their patients into the hallway. Six people died there, five of them patients, plus one visitor.
The storm blew out hundreds of windows and caused damage so extensive that doctors had to abandon the hospital soon after the twister passed. A crumpled helicopter lay on its side in the parking lot near a single twisted mass of metal that used to be cars.
Dr. Jim Riscoe said some members of his emergency room staff showed up after the tornado with injuries of their own, but they worked through the night anyway.
“I spent most of my life at that hospital,” Roscoe said at a triage center at Joplin’s Memorial Hall entertainment venue. “It’s awful. I had two pregnant nurses who dove under gurneys … It’s a testimony to the human spirit.”
Once the center of a thriving mining industry, Joplin flourished though World War II because of its rich lead and zinc mines. It also gained fame as a stop along Route 66, the storied highway stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., before freeways diminished the city’s importance.
The community, named for the founder of the area’s first Methodist congregation, is now a transportation crossroads and manufacturing hub. It’s also the hometown of poet Langston Hughes and “Gunsmoke” actor Dennis Weaver.
Major employers in and around the city include electronics manufacturer LaBarge Inc., colleges such as Missouri Southern State University and hospitals and clinics. Agriculture is also important to the economy.
As the tornado bore down on their trailer home, Joshua Wohlford, his pregnant girlfriend and their two toddlers fled to a Walmart store. The family narrowly escaped after a shelf of toys partially collapsed, forming a makeshift tent that shielded them.
“It was 15 minutes of hell,” Wohlford said.
At a Fast Trip convenience store, another 20 people ran into a pitch-black cooler as the building began to collapse around them. They documented their experience with a video that was drawing tens of thousands of views online by Monday afternoon. The audio was even more terrifying than the imagery — earsplitting wind, objects getting smashing, wailing children and a woman praying repeatedly.
Brennan Stebbins said the group crouched on the floor, clinging to and comforting each other until they were able to crawl out. No one was seriously hurt.
Shielded by mattresses, former lawmaker Chuck Surface rode out the storm in his basement with his wife, daughter, granddaughter and dog. After about five minutes, the deafening roar abruptly stopped.
“When it got to where we thought we could look out,” he said, “we went to the top of the stairs and there was no roof — it was all open air.”